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One of the most disappointing childhood memories I can barely recall was a trip to “Disney on Ice.” I’m not sure what any of us were expecting, but after my folks shelled out a small fortune for tickets, snacks and souvenir junk, we were subjected to a bunch of people skating around The Garden wearing large plastic heads while the audio track from one of Disney’s animated classics blared over the loudspeakers. (I think it might have been “Peter Pan.” But like I said, I can barely remember anything besides the boredom, and wishing we could just be watching the movie instead.)
I’m sure the program has probably improved over the past 35 years or so, but I thought a lot about “Disney on Ice” last week after having two of the most dispiriting moviegoing experiences in recent memory. Seeing this summer’s new “live-action” mega-productions of the beloved Disney animated hits “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” back-to-back left me feeling ripped off by a bargain basement nostalgia shack, sitting through wan, crummy-looking facsimiles of cartoons I remembered rather fondly. There’s no reason for either of these movies to exist besides wringing a few more dollars out of your residual affection for the originals. They’re like “Disney on Ice” except nobody can even skate.
“Aladdin” is already the fourth-highest grossing movie of 2019 and is close to breaking the billion-dollar mark at the worldwide box office. It’s a spectacularly tedious and unimaginative film, laboriously rehashing familiar moments with a largely charisma-free cast — save for a game performance by Will Smith as the genie who, for all his considerable charm, can’t escape the shadow of Robin Williams. I’d always thought the whole point of 1992’s “Aladdin” was that Williams riffed so fast and ferociously only outrageous animation could do justice to his wild improvisations. To assume that he’d be replaceable in a remake — even by The Fresh Prince — strikes me as a foundational misunderstanding of the material’s appeal.
The chintzy, over-lit sets and karaoke vibe of “Aladdin” reminded me of one of those theme park stunt shows where employees act out famous scenes from your favorite films — which is cool, I guess, if you’re there in person but not so much on a movie screen. I personally can’t imagine loving the original “Aladdin” so much you’d be longing to go see an inferior, elongated version with truncated tunes, less impressive visuals and without Robin Williams. But then who am I to argue with a billion dollars at the box office?
“The Lion King” is an even more egregious diminishment and perhaps one of the most forehead-smacking bad ideas since Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho.” Using the same state-of-the-art, photorealistic computer animation techniques he employed in his not-too-shabby 2016 reworking of “The Jungle Book,” director Jon Favreau has orchestrated a slavishly faithful, scene-for-scene re-creation of Disney’s fuzzy 1994 take on “Hamlet," populated by a cast that’s been painstakingly designed to look like actual jungle animals.
There’s a remarkable attention to every follicle of windswept fur on these beasts, even while they move with the weird weightlessness of so many CGI creations. (Still, they’re convincing enough to have fooled former Fox News columnist Roger Friedman, who in his review claimed Favreau had somehow trained actual lions and hyenas to act.) I suppose this is quite a feat of special effects wizardry, given how meticulously the animals have been rendered to appear as lifelike as possible. Except you know, when they’re singing Elton John songs.
At any point during the past 25 years were you wondering what a real meerkat and warthog would look like belting out “Hakuna Matata?” It’s not a pretty sight, and the commitment to keeping these animals as photorealistic as possible means their range of movements is sorely limited. They can’t dance, so instead they kind of just trot in circles around one another to bouncy music (conjuring memories of those skaters at “Disney on Ice.”) The beady little cat eyes on Simba and his pride are hardly inviting to an audience’s identification, and this bizarre decision not to anthropomorphize the animals leaves the movie stranded in the uncanny valley.
Even the vocal performances are strangely subdued, as if everyone were trying to keep from sounding too much like they’re in a cartoon. The wild oranges and purples from the original film are replaced by gloomy shades of beige. (I could be heard loudly complaining in the lobby afterwards that at the climax you’ve got two beige cats fighting in front of an oatmeal rock with some brown grass on the ground.) Every aesthetic choice here has been made to tone down the material, making it less vivid, less expressive, less animated.
It goes without saying that “The Lion King” is bound to be a massive moneymaking juggernaut. (With 51 scheduled showtimes at Boston multiplexes on Friday alone, it’s not like moviegoers will have much other choice but to watch it.) But I wonder for how much longer “what you loved the last time around, only less so” can remain a viable entertainment philosophy. Eventually they’re gonna run out of stuff to remake, right?
Much has been written about Disney’s domination of popular culture, currently commanding the top five slots on this year’s box office charts, with “The Lion King” and a new “Star Wars” still on the way. Looking back, it’s almost impossible to imagine that 20 years ago the Mouse House’s big Fourth of July release was Spike Lee’s explicit, incendiary “Summer of Sam,” part of a varied seasonal slate that had room for their animated “Tarzan,” “Runaway Bride” and a little sleeper called “The Sixth Sense.”
Obviously the movie business has changed a lot over the past two decades, but does that really mean we need to settle for this summer of same? One would imagine that such an absurdly, exorbitantly successful studio would have the freedom to take chances and try out a few fresh ideas, instead of just serving up these stale, earthbound rehashes of their former triumphs. They should be showing us a whole new world.
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